The friendship between Van Gogh and Gaugin didn't end well: Van Gogh nearly stabbed Gaugin, and afterward cut off his own ear in horror at his actions. Luckily, the friendship between poet Jack Gilbert and artist Henryk Fantazos, both Hillsborough residents, has not produced violence, only a fun collaborative objet d'art, Song of the Line. Produced by local publisher Horse & Buggy Press, Fantazos' engraved lines are meant to sing in harmony with Gilbert's lines of poetry, which journey from lottery winners and tightrope walkers to trampolines and leprechauns.
Word and image complement each other throughout Song of the Line. Fantazos' engravings are not just illustrations of Gilbert's work; they are not always directly linked with the poem they face in the book, nor are the poems simply ekphrastic poems that describe the images in the engravings. Rather, the two mediums operate independently, inhabiting the same world of humor, reflection and surreal imagination. The cover art, an oil painting by Fantazos, has a landscape reminiscent of Dali, with a vaudevillian parade of harlequinesque musicians, a dancer, and a candle-porting armadillo; the reader can find a similarly visual delight in Gilbert's description of a white beard as a "fettucini of peony," or in the fun of rhyming the words "windows" with "innuendoes." This musical, visual parade beckons us to follow along.
In the vein of Horace and Philip Sidney, who contend that the aim of poetry is to instruct and delight the reader, the poems want to make us laugh and to instruct us about love, to delight not just in humor or wordplay but in a kind of witty worldliness that has hints of a precise wisdom. The poem "Treasure" begins: "Leaping from the chaun tree the Leprechaun...." You may stop to wonder what a chaun tree is before you realize that this is simply where the lepre in the word leprechaun leaps. As the poem progresses, a farmer and a leprechaun lightly discuss the "secret of life" and whether we would really want to know it. (The leprechaun thinks it would be seen as just "another crock of ballocks wisdom.")
The book covers many classic themes of poetry—death, love, art, philosophy—but explores these subjects in what Gilbert calls a "laughter where wisdom has its only moments" (a line from his poem celebrating the fake pre-Socratic philosopher, Euprotes). Or take another line that highlights the close relationship between humor and wisdom: "Love is a kind of infantile paralysis/ for which there's no vaccine."
We can see a similar tension in Fantazos' engraving "Uprooted Home," which shows us a house with legs and arms covered in a tattered shawl, walking with a cane through a forest away from the viewer. The house looks homeless, a kind of serious joke, which may represent an expatriate cut off from his roots, or a household going through divorce, or simply the fragility of memory.
Perhaps the best pair in the collection (though they do not sit opposite each other) is Fantazos' "Urbane Conversation" and Gilbert's "All Things Considered." The image portrays two sophisticated men with hats and bow ties sitting on the shoulders of two cloaked prisoners, whose faces are hidden by cloaks, subservient to the other men's very existence—directing us towards the hard, modest and exploited work that allows for all things urbane. Gilbert's poem, parodying All Things Considered on NPR, begins with a Q & A on poetry and the etymology of the word thug before snowballing into a discussion of contemporary political issues. Both the image and the poem are self-contained, but they play off each other nicely. It is because of this wonderful interplay that one can't help wishing there were more artwork in the book, that we could see more collaboration between these artists, rather than having the 12 images play second fiddle to the much more numerous poems. But it is clear that these sister arts, the engraved line and the lines of verse, work in parallel and sing delightfully in tune.
For ordering information on Song of the Line, visit www.horseandbuggypress.com.